A young boy drives legislative change as an autism advocate
“My principal would put me in this converted storage closet called the ‘Crisis Room,’” said Alex Campbell (pictured above, at center with his family), as he described his experiences as a 1st grader. Alex, who is extremely verbal and inquisitive, is on the autism spectrum. His teacher and school administrators thought his classroom behavior was disruptive and placed him in seclusion.
When his father found out what was happening, he was appalled. “My dad started calling and emailing the school,” Alex explained. “My principal didn’t answer. Eventually, he went up to the school and asked questions. And then I was expelled.”
Alex’s parents, both educators, reached out to advocacy groups to research the laws. “I discovered there were no laws in Virginia to prevent this action,” Alex’s father, Sean, explained. “From a legal and civil standpoint, there was nothing we could do.”
As Sean began investigating what it would take to change the laws, Alex contributed to the effort by writing Alex’s Story, a picture book about his experiences. Alex shared his book with state legislators who were so moved that they created a commission to study the issue. During one of the commission hearings, Alex spoke to a group of two hundred people about the punishments and threats he endured in school, bringing two of the legislators to tears.
“At first I was a little bit nervous,” Alex said, describing how he felt talking to lawmakers about what had happened to him. “But as I got to know them and meet with them more, we got to know each other better and I was less nervous.”
As a result of Alex’s efforts, two bills mandating regulations on the use of restraint and seclusion in Virginia’s public schools were passed into law in 2015. Alex is proud of his accomplishments as an autism advocate and hopes that the law will help children in similar situations.
His parents are also proud. “If you had asked me two years ago if I could imagine my son sharing such a difficult story or being interested in politics, I would have said ‘no way,’” commented Sean. “He’s helping us be better people. He showed us that you have to be involved if you want change. There’s always work to do.”
In recognition of his work as an autism advocate, the Council for Exceptional Children presented Alex with a 2016 Yes I Can Award. The award, sponsored by Pearson, acknowledges exceptional children who are making incredible contributions to their communities as artists, scholars, advocates, technology experts, and successful students and employees.
Now ten years old and in 5th grade, Alex is continuing his work as an autism advocate. He shared his story with the Commission on Youth last fall and plans to travel to Capitol Hill this summer to persuade federal legislators to pass laws regulating restraint and seclusion on a national level. When Alex grows up, he wants to continue his advocacy work as a lawyer, specializing not only in educational law but also in personal injury, civil rights, and family law.